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Workhouse to Westminster – a review

Stuart Weir reviews a new autobiography of Lord Smith, an energetic crusader for democracy and social justice - and a vital ally during stormy times at the New Statesman magazine.

The chances are that you haven’t heard of Trevor Smith, or to be more precise, Professor Lord Smith of Clifton. Yet he was the prime financial and intellectual force behind the surge towards democracy in the 1990s when Charter 88 was rampant under Anthony Barnett and the Blair governments were legislating for a spate of constitutional reforms.

Smith is a man of singular entrepreneurial vision and remarkable political energy who most unusually followed through his many ideas into action. He was a political scientist of distinction when he took on the chair of the Joseph Rowntree Social Services Trust in 1987 and transformed it into the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust with a strong democratic direction. You should know that he became a close friend and colleague of mine.

His autobiography, Workhouse to Westminster, is published this month and gives a nice rollicking account of his family background as well as his professional career. Smith’s father spent time as a boy with his family in a workhouse, polishing the stone floor. As well as Smith’s 12 years spent proactively chairing the Trust, the book covers his ‘Lucky Jim” years as an academic, his time as a reforming Vice Chancellor of Ulster University and as a Lib Dem activist and Lib Dem peer in the House of Lords (where he campaigned vigorously for its abolition).

Smith’s account of his life is often bitingly candid, very funny and frequently gossipy (on, for example, the Jeremy Thorpe affair). I first met him when he was the Trust’s representative on the New Statesman board just as I took on the editorship. He was not obviously my type. He dressed like an old fogey, was a High Church Anglican, and a member of the Reform Club. But I soon saw that he was not on the board just to make up the numbers – and I began to relish his directness and salty sense of humour.

Not long after Smith joined the New Statesman board, the magazine’s conceited CEO (who had been foisted on me) refused to fund my proposal to launch Charter 88 – which I saw as a joint promotion exercise for the magazine as well as a political enterprise. So I turned to Trevor and asked for a £5,000 loan, He agreed at once. He reflects, “the proposals in the draft charter for improving democracy and protecting civil liberties coincided exactly with my own thinking”. We soon obtained backing from some 350 well-known signatories and the rest is history. Trevor went on to sustain Charter 88 with major funding during the 1990s when the Blair governments were legislating for a programme of constitutional reforms including devolution, human rights, freedom of information.

Smith pays tribute to the contribution that John Smith, Labour’s leader in the early 1990s, made in committing his party to reform. But it was undoubtedly down to the impact of Charter 88 and its ability to mobilise opinion under Barnett’s inspired leadership that obliged Blair to fulfil Smith’s legacy, however reluctantly and incompletely. The Daily Telegraph recognised Charter 88 as the most successful pressure group of the decade.

Smith also initiated other projects to encourage a more democratic culture in the UK and to strengthen the promotion of constitutional debate. One was a 13 year series of opinion polls, the State of the Nation, measuring public attitudes towards constitutional issues over time and revealing, for example, that the public rated economic and social rights as highly as they did traditional civil and political rights. Another was Democratic Audit, a research body at Essex University which audited the democratic performance of the British constitution (I was its director alongside the political philosopher, David Beetham).

Smith describes these and other initiatives and his time as Vice-Chancellor at Ulster amid the fiercely divided Northern Ireland society. He recounts how a man with a deep Ulster brogue phoned when he was appointed to warn that “we will be looking after him”. It turned out later that the threat came not from a terrorist but a member of the staff he was to inherit. He details the history of an audacious project which he almost pulled off, establishing a “peaceline” campus in northern Belfast equidistant between the Catholic Falls Road and Protestant Shankill Road as a symbol of reconciliation (or as the officialese had it, a “confidence restoring measure”). He steered this proposal through the self-regarding politics of Northern Ireland and Westminster to the point where Clinton, Blair and their wives were to attend a ceremony to mark the turning of the first sod. Unfortunately, he retired too soon and his successor aborted it.

Smith omits one important episode from his account. As a board member of the Statesman, he helped save it as a political journal. The over-ambitious board lost something like £250,000 in a crisis and had to put the magazine up for sale. In desperation, the chair, Philip Whitehead, intended to sell to an Irish media group who planned to turn the Statesman into a news magazine. Smith warned me of this plan, and that I and my CEO were about to be ambushed at a meeting with representatives of the Irish group.

So I turned up forewarned. Once at the meeting, I immediately and ostentatiously began taking notes. “What are you doing?” Whitehead demanded. I replied: “I think our readers deserve to know what is being done to their magazine, don’t you?” End of.

Workhouse to Westminster, by Trevor Smith, £13.99 from The Caper Press.

 

About the author

Stuart Weir is a political activist. He was formerly editor of the New Statesman when he launched Charter 88, and director of Democratic Audit at Essex University.

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